Making a school-record fifth straight appearance in a postseason bowl game, the Air Force Falcons head to the nation's capital on Wednesday to do battle with the Toledo Rockets in the Military Bowl at RFK Stadium.
Air Force, which faces the Rockets for the first-time ever this week, began the 2011 campaign well enough with three wins in the first four outings, the lone setback coming against TCU (35-19), the team that ran the table in the Mountain West Conference yet again this season. The Academy then hit a few snags, namely Notre Dame, San Diego State and Boise State in the month of October and those setbacks dropped the program to just 3-4 with five games remaining. Needing a strong finish, the Falcons picked up wins in four of those decisions in order to win the requisite number of games to be considered bowl eligible, given the fact that they picked up a couple of victories against members of the Football Championship Subdivision early on.
As for the Rockets, they had great success during their Mid-American Conference schedule in 2011, winning all but one (Northern Illinois, 63-60) of their league bouts to finish 7-1 in MAC play in back-to-back seasons for the first time in program history. The team showed great resolve as it bounced back from three straight losses to Ohio State, Boise State and Syracuse in the month of September in order to win seven of the final eight outings and become co-champs of the MAC's West Division. However, because NIU won the one meeting between the two teams during the regular season, it was the Huskies who represented the division in the MAC title game versus Ohio University and eventually won the championship outright.
So successful was Toledo that bigger BCS programs took notice, particularly Illinois which named Tim Beckman its new head coach the second week of December. As a result of Beckman leaving the Rockets, the program made offensive coordinator Matt Campbell its new leader. As the youngest head coach at the Football Bowl Subdivision level at 32 years of age, Campbell will be the one on the sidelines leading the Rockets in this contest.
Even though he won't be involved in the postseason for the Rockets, Beckman was still proud of the way his team performed this season.
"I think the Military Bowl will provide our student-athletes with an outstanding bowl experience in Washington D.C., as well as the opportunity to play against a very tough Air Force team," said Tim Beckman. "I'm very proud of this team. This is an excellent reward for all the hard work put in by our players, coaches and everyone involved in our team's success."
Air Force enters the contest with a record of 10-10-1 all-time in bowl appearances and that includes a mark of 2-2 under head coach Troy Calhoun who is in his fifth season with The Academy. Last year, the Falcons took part in the Independence Bowl and slipped by Georgia Tech in a 14-7 final thanks to a three-yard rushing touchdown by Jared Tew in the fourth quarter.
As for the Rockets, they're postseason pedigree ranges back to 1969 when they demolished Davidson in the Tangerine Bowl, 56-33. Last year, the team clashed with FIU in the Little Caesars Bowl and came up short in a 34-32 final to drop them to 8-3 in bowl games all-time, although some Toledo historians also take into consideration four postseason bouts the school hosted between 1946-49 at the Glass Bowl, the team putting up a mark of 3-1 in those contests as well.
This particular bowl started in 2008 when it was known as the Congressional Bowl and then took on the name of the Eagle Bank Bowl after picking up major sponsorship from a financial institution. Last year local favorites, the Maryland Terrapins, crushed East Carolina in a 51-20 final.
The Toledo offense begins with the exploits of Eric Page, who was not only named All-MAC First Team as a wide receiver after he caught a school-record 112 passes in 2011, he was also named All-MAC First Team as both a punt returner and kickoff returner as well, making him one of only three players in league history to earn a spot on the first team at three different positions in the same year.
Feeding the ball to Page this season on offense were quarterbacks Terrance Owens and Austin Dantin, who combined to throw for 30 touchdowns and just six interceptions as they often shared time under center. Owens, who appeared in 11 of the team's 12 games, completed a staggering 71.4 percent of his attempts, although Dantin wasn't far behind with his 64.9 percent accuracy.
Running backs Adonis Thomas (963 yards, 11 TDs) and Morgan Williams (671 yards, 11 TDs) helped supply the offense with much-needed ground production as they guided the squad to an average of 221.2 ypg and better than five yards per attempt.
With more than three times as many receptions as anyone else on the squad, Page garnered plenty of attention when lining up out on the wing and ended up averaging about 10 yards per catch and landing in the end zone 10 times on receptions and once more on a punt return. Always a threat to break a big play, Page is constantly involved in the action for the Rockets and that's why he was named a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, which recognizes the nation's most versatile player.
The run defense for the Rockets during the regular season was rather strong, giving up just 123.2 ypg to rank first in the MAC and 26th nationally, but much of that had to do with the fact that many opponents opted to test Toledo through the air where the team was much more vulnerable while permitting 277.9 ypg to rank last in the conference and 109th in the country. In fact, three times this season the pass defense, which earned a rating of 145.5, allowed at least five passing scores.
While the Rockets were having a tough time slowing down opposing passing attacks, Air Force was being beaten up by other programs who ran the ball as much as it did. The Falcons ended up being second in the nation on offense with 320.3 ypg on the ground, but at the same time the team was giving up 227.8 ypg by way of the run and that placed the squad fifth in the Mountain West and 113th in the country.
The pass defense for the Falcons was much stronger, at least as far as the stats were concerned, because the program was permitting just 162.7 ypg and that not only had The Academy ranked first in the conference, it also placed it sixth in the country overall. Seven different players recorded interceptions for the Falcons, but it was Jon Davis that made it more of a habit with his four picks.
Working closer to the line of scrimmage, Alex Means led the Falcons with nine tackles for loss and six sacks, adding three forced fumbles, a couple of recoveries and a pair of blocked kicks. Brady Amack placed first on the team with a whopping 125 tackles, his 10.4 stops per game placing him second in the league and 15th in the nation.
Over on the other side of the ball, the Air Force offense continued to evolve and incorporate even more passing into the attack this season, thanks to the growth and development of quarterback Tim Jefferson. The winningest signal caller in school history with 28 victories, Jefferson converted 98-of-161 passes for a career-high 1,478 yards on the season with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. His 60.9 completion percentage was fourth-best for a single season at Air Force
Operating the triple-option at full capacity, Jefferson also tied for the team lead in rushing touchdowns with 10, matching Mike DeWitt as both players combined to generate more than 1,000 rushing yards. Getting the job done all on his own was Asher Clark who carried the ball 151 times and finished with 1,096 yards and six TDs for a program that had a total of 11 players credited with at least one rushing score as they tallied 39 total TDs on the ground.
Giving the Air Force offense another dimension altogether was Zack Kauth who reeled in 27 passes for a team-best 543 yards and four touchdowns, while Jonathan Warzeka caught a team-high 28 balls which he turned into 392 yards and three scores as well.
Not only is playing in the postseason an important feat for the Falcons, coach Calhoun also recognizes the significance of playing in this particular bowl game and is proud to be a part of it.
"We're ecstatic," Calhoun says of the opportunity. "The Military Bowl in Washington, D.C. is us. It's who we are. When the door opened we thought this was a perfect fit. You just don't know how many times you're going to get this opportunity because of the tie-ins you have with your conference. We're lucky to be able to get this and to go to Washington, D.C. This is another remarkable accomplishment by our team members and our administration."